Born in 1923 in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela
Died in 2005 in Paris, France
A Penetrating Gaze
by Matthieu Poirier, Paris, 2014
“The constructive sculpture is not only three-dimensional, it is four-dimensional, insofar as we try to introduce the element of time. By time, I mean movement, rhythm: real movement, like illusory movement, that is perceived through indications of the flux of lines and forms in a sculpture or a painting... […] In my view, rhythm, in a work of art, is as important as space, structure and image. I hope that the future will further develop these concepts.”
The integration of time into sculpture, which the author of the Realistic Manifesto (1920) here invokes, is present in the work of Soto, from the beginning of the 1950s, in his first “optical vibrations” presented at the historic exhibition “Le Mouvement” at the Galerie Denise René in 1955. The dynamic principle, intrinsic to these “high reliefs” – to borrow the vocabulary of sculpture – is essential, especially since it can then be found in the quasi-totality of the artist's work, in which he devises endless variations, all founded on repetition and progression rather than on classical composition. There is a play between frames placed in space, on two registers separated by several centimeters: the first of these frames, irregular and transparent, consists at times of screen prints, at others of painted lines. The second frame is, in turn, set back and painted with fine black and white vertical lines. This relationship between form and content is crucial: visually, it generates a rippling and shifting effect with the slightest variation in the perspective of the observer. From this point, Soto abandoned two-dimensional painting to devote himself tirelessly to these “reliefs.” Emptiness occupies an important place, in the same way as volume does in many of his sculptures, arranged for their part in a shower of strands or colored threads fixed to a canopy and/or a base. In these volumes, which he often qualified as “virtual,” the simplicity of the material and the complexity of the intangible effect are juxtaposed, as are the neutrality of the single color and the rhythmic mobility of the vibration.
For Jesús Rafael Soto, the experience of the work takes place in the real time and space of its perception. In this sense, the term “chronochrome” translates his exploration of the temporal, rhythmic and vibratory qualities of the monochrome. Unlike his close friend Yves Klein, Soto liberates the color pigment from the stable structure of the flat painting to elevate it to the ranks of pure luminous phenomenon.
Some influences are palpable from his early years in Paris: the neo-plasticism of Piet Mondrian and the theories of László Moholy-Nagy on light and transparency, notably exhibited in Vision in Motion (1947) – Soto obtained, to have it translated, a copy of the book at an exhibition of the former Bauhaus teacher at the Galerie Arnaud in December 1952. Soto also evokes the role played, in his rejection of composition and the implementation of repetitive systems, by the serial and 12-tone music of Pierre Boulez and his reading of the book on Arnold Schönberg by René Leibowitz. “My interest was focused on works in the Bauhaus spirit and, with Klee, on works that explore perspective from several points of view” Soto affirmed in 1974 on the subject of his early passions. Indeed, if they rely on a system, the material elements of his works seem to vary or begin to vibrate according to the direction from which they are considered, as much as they arouse a motor response in their observer. Unlike the wind for Alexander Calder or electricity for Jean Tinguely, the human is the driving force for Soto, even without any manipulation of the object. This aspect of the work, strictly speaking “dynamogenic,” was misunderstood when it emerged – as it was with other artists such as Heinz Mack, Julio Le Parc or Bridget Riley. Let us recall that, since the 1960s, Soto is widely regarded as the hero of an art described alternately as “kinetic” or “optic” – which the artist, anxious to assert his uniqueness, denied regularly. Thus he declined the invitation to participate in “The Responsive Eye” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965, on the grounds that the purely “optical” paintings of Victor Vasarely occupied too much importance in the programming. Soto's approach, nonetheless, belongs to what the curator William Seitz called “perceptual abstraction,” that is to say a non-figurative art form that falls within the purview of phenomenology and addresses spatial and temporal perception as a medium in itself.
“Chronochrome” echoes the exhibition dedicated to the artist by the ARC-Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1969. In the catalog, Jean Clay emphasizes the highly spiritual dimension of “radical dematerialization” conducted by the artist. He cites Malevich, who took on, more than 50 years earlier, the theoretical framework that, he said, ruled the yet very young field of abstract painting: “Thus, affirms Jean Clay, is realized [the] prophecy [of Malevich] in 1919: 'he who makes abstract constructions, and who bases them on the mutual relations of colors in the painting, he is still trapped in the world of aesthetics, rather than immersing himself in philosophy'.” From the radical abstraction of the constructivist to that of the kineticist, it is necessary to escape this logic of pictorial closure: the work must be “open”, to take the expression formulated by Umberto Eco about kinetic art in particular. Jean Clay seems to find the ultimate incarnation of this logic in Soto's Penetrables (from 1967). These are showers of fine nylon tubes, translucent and colored, in which viewers are invited to move about freely and to experience continuous contact. Jean Clay presents this logic as an important development of the “ambivalent space” that emerged in the early Plexiglas reliefs of the 1950s. The modest dimensions of the older works in no way inhibit this visual and spatial impact. On the contrary, asserts Clay, Soto obtained, “by the play of differently angled stripes, surprising effects of varying gravity, as if each plate corresponded to the atmosphere of a different planet, as if each series of stripes responded differently to the laws of universal gravitation [...]. One step to the side, and a whole set of different levitations is set in motion, creating the unsettling sensation that contradictory physical rules prevail simultaneously on the micro-space Soto has trapped.” A psychophysiological experience (and not an imaginary one) of weightlessness is at play, in the context of a universe ruled by “non-Euclidean” forces, that is to say, beyond rational apprehension.
To draw a parallel, the author cites Paul Klee, who “loved to confront in one painting the most divergent perspectives, to multiply the most contradictory vanishing points, in order to enclose in the surface of his work a confusing, vertiginous, logically elusive space as the eye wandered like in a dream, never finding the landmarks of real life.” However, the optical space of the two artists differs on one point: that of Klee, “ripped from the imagination,” would only be a “translation” of real space in the fixed painting format, that anyone could appreciate comfortably, from “the floor of a gallery or an apartment” – “This deliberate destruction of spatial order, born of the artist's sensory experience, was however communicated to us via a page or a two-dimensional canvas that fit perfectly into our familiar sense of space.” The work can no longer content itself with an autonomous and closed representation; it must question the stability of consciousness: “The work [of Soto] no longer takes place beyond reality, it is no longer a window to the imagination, a porthole through which the eye, from a familiar spot, could for a moment savor the vertigo once experienced by the artist. Instead, it bites into the real, it impinges on our sense of space, it calls into question our idiosyncrasy.” Thus, the idea of painting as “window on the world” formulated by Leon Battista Alberti (De Pictura, 1434) seems too vast to the critic, who from then on prefers the term “porthole.” But this small ship's window is more similar, in the description given by the author, to a peephole in a door that one imagines to be closed and that only offers a monocular and unsettled vision of reality. In contrast to this sense of mistrust and impulse control, Soto invites viewers of his works to dive fully into the flow of reality.
Soto develops a new relationship with the work, which involves much more than simply increasing the size. It is an opening, a spatial expansion of the object: the latter, classically understood as opaque and closed unto itself, becomes an immersive and changing matrix. It is in this context that concepts specific to architecture emerge. Some of the features of the work, such as temporality, multiplicity of viewpoints, paradoxical materiality or the architectural promenade, refuse to be captured by a mental or reprographic image, considered in its fixed state. For Rudolf Arnheim, these qualities further emphasize the limits of our visual perception of the environment as they rely on the power and control of the eye:
“The mind reconstitutes, from a multiplicity of views, an image of the three-dimensional objective form, the sculpture or building in question. [...] Therefore, an architectural work is an object that nobody has ever seen and will ever see in its entirety. It is a mental image, synthesized with varying degrees of success, from partial visions.”
Note that in the case of Soto's Penetrable, for example, the “mental image” is never completely abolished – it persists – because what the audience discovers at first, before entering it, is the general form of the supporting structure. The latter is extremely simple: it consists of a square or rectangular canopy supported by pillars at a height of about four meters, in which are set, according to a fixed grid, the thousands of fine plastic tubes. But this point of view, from the outside, is quite limited and partial.
Henri Bergson, a few decades before, described the expanded perceptive faculty as a key component of consciousness. Wishing to challenge those who, from Zenon to Kant by way of “metaphysicians in general,” made “of change a crystallization of perception, a solidification with an eye to practice,” Bergson advocates a kinetic perception, alive or even, to use one of his keywords, “vitalist.” “What we should have to do is grasp change and duration in their original mobility [...] through the extension and revivification of our faculty of perceiving, perhaps also (though for the moment it is not a question of rising to such heights) through a prolongation which privileged souls will give to intuition, we could re-establish continuity in our knowledge as a whole – a continuity which would no longer be hypothetical and constructed, but experienced and lived.” The terms used by Bergson, as well as the modalities employed by Soto, are explicit: it is time to break the bonds that have too long kept perception – and therefore art itself – away from the continuum of reality as it is understood by modern physics: a phenomenal, spatial, structural and temporal unit.
Soto's Penetrables propose a specific experience of duration similar to that advocated by Henri Bergson throughout his oeuvre: “to respond to those who see in this 'real' duration something, a hint of the ineffable and the mysterious, I say it is the clearest thing in the world: real duration is what we always called time, but time perceived as indivisible.” For it is not about adding images, points of view and fixed positions, but rather to make of them a continuous synthesis.
This consciousness in Soto of a non-Euclidean world, dynamic, unlimited and impossible to grasp by the senses alone, which would depend largely on the perceptual modalities that we refer to in these pages, predates the 1960s. Pierre Francastel detected their inception in the early 20th century, which he attributes to modern science and mathematics:
“[...] The fundamental opposition between the rational and the geometric on the one hand, and the needs of the soul and the imagination on the other, has disappeared as a result of the development of irrational principles in physics and chemistry as well as in mathematics, and as a result of the sensory understanding in art of a non-Euclidean universe. The introduction of the fourth dimension, time, in giving us the opportunity to experiment and represent multiple points of view as well as simultaneity, broke the old limitation of our senses and thrust humanity, on every level, into the conquest of a new universe.”
Francastel chooses to extend his analysis to Sigfried Giedion. The latter, in his book Space, Time and Architecture (1941), indeed presents a parallel between the work of mathematician Hermann Minkowski and the beginnings of Cubism and Futurism. Similarly, for Francastel, developments in knowledge provoke the rupture of the “old limitation of our feelings.” Therefore, the artist, through his creations, must respond to this new multidimensional regime of visual experience. At the turn of the 1960s, this is precisely what some artists concerned with perceptual tendency would focus on, no longer in terms of the painting and its imagery, but the temporal and spatial variability of the live experience. But this expansion, which others would describe as “baroque,” called for, as a necessary counterpoint, an intense reduction of physical materials. Often the phenomenon fits in the surface of a canvas, in a simple box, most often painted black to disappear in an exhibition hall plunged in darkness. Consequently, this dark room may itself become the box and the medium of the work.
By its transparency and incessant palpitation, Soto’s work also offers a unique resonance with the Trübe of Goethe. In his work, the philosopher states that “[...] if turbidity is the weakening of transparency and the beginning of corporeality, we can express it as a collection of differences, that is to say, of transparency and non-transparency, which results in an uneven amalgam, which we designate by the expression arising out of the alteration of the unit, of the repose and of the connection of such parts, which are then in disorder and confusion, that is to say the Trübe [turbidity].” Goethe, as Maurice Élie recalls, studies these disordered environments in the chapter of the Traité which deals with physical colors of the “first class,” that is to say, the colors formed by the combination of light and darkness through mist, vapor or smoke. By its character as an intermediate medium, Trübe is equally opaque and transparent. It allows us to describe a phenomenon of balance between being and nothingness, between the vibratory unit of the lumino-chromatic field and the chaotic mobility of its elements. As such, many works of Soto’s known as “virtual volumes” actually amass the atmospheric qualities of diaphanousness such as Aristotle describes them in his Meteorology: “The Sun also, seen through fog or smoke, appears red.” Similarly, in his Minor Treatises on Natural History, he contemplates the scope, at once floating, indirect and corporal, of lumino-chromatic presence: “the nature of light, he said, is in its indefinite diaphanousness. As to the limit of diaphanousness, which is in the body, it is obvious that it has some reality, and, according to the facts, it is clear that this is where color lies, because color is at the limit of bodies or is their limit.” With Soto, color appears only through its “indeterminate” dissemination, into which the gaze plunges. Moreover, as a precursor to the reliefs, volumes and other “penetrables” of Soto’s, the painter Franz Marc, in his “Aphorisms” (1914), associates with art certain discoveries in optics, and senses, in the modern gaze, a similar capacity to penetrate the visible, even if it is completely material and opaque:
“The art to come will be the incarnation of our scientific credo. We break down prudish and deceptive nature and recompose it according to our own design. We see through the matter, and the day is probably not far off when we will penetrate it like air. The material is a power that man still tolerates, but he no longer recognizes. Instead of just considering the world, we X-ray it. No mystic could reach, in his hours of greatest ecstasy when the sky seemed to open before his eyes, the total abstraction of modern thought that no obstacle shall impede.”
This fantasy of total visual power, where all tactile and physical resistance of an object is abolished, places nature (described as “prudish and deceptive”) under its control and encourages the observer, incidentally, to comprehend the plays of superpositions and chromatic transparencies in the works of the painter. These in turn are motivated by the discoveries of modern optics: matter, “X-rayed” by a superior eye, becomes penetrable as the air, and color is, like in his most abstract paintings, atmospheric, total and mystical. Marc uses simple geometric shapes, but in a kaleidoscopic manner, immediately descended from Analytical Cubism and so characteristic of German Expressionism and the Orphism of Robert Delaunay: the planes are as fragmented as they are layered and the colors interpenetrate them in the virtual thickness of the pictorial layer.
These ambulatory environments demonstrate Soto's choice to focus on a liberated field of vision and of ambulation; the observer, like an actor without a script or a dancer without choreography, gets lost – at least as far as he find himself, sensorially and socially, forgotten in the object-painting.
The works gathered today at Galerie Perrotin can be puzzling, as minimalist in their workmanship as they are elusive when approached in person. The eye, – but sometimes also the body, in a Penetrable, for example – subtly trapped, can wander endlessly in fragmented areas, constantly oscillating between volume and plane, object and image. By invading our perceptual space without ever letting us fully grasp it, a work of Soto’s, as Henri Bergson says, is an object that nobody has ever seen and will ever see in its entirety. Whether via a wall relief, a sculpture in the round, or an environment, the artist invites us to a singular experience, renewed with each contemplation: one of incompleteness, a space-time continuum whose story and image will always fail to resolve. This is perhaps the primary quality of the Soto’s staccato monochromes, which makes him not only a major player in the history of abstraction, but also of modern and contemporary art.